TY Cobb may not be as well known as Babe Ruth, but many major league baseball experts have claimed the Georgia Peach to be the superior player.
Though Ruth has been famous for a century for his 60 home runs in 1927, which set a new standard for power hitting, Cobb has been known as more versatile.
But Cobb, who played the outfield from 1905 to 1928 (22 of those years with the Detroit Tigers), has been cursed with a reputation as a nasty man, one who sharpened the spikes of his baseball shoes so that he could terrorize opponents when he rounded the bases.
In this compelling family memoir, Cobb's grandson, Herschel, sets out to correct the legend, and does so convincingly.
Herschel Cobb painstakingly illustrates his grandfather's formative influences, to explain his behaviour, especially the aggressive dimension.
Further, he itemizes the chance factors and exaggerations people employed in depicting Cobb as a vicious athlete whose approach to sport -- and life -- was win at any cost.
Herschel seems to devote an exceptional amount of his testimony -- if that's the right word -- to his own painful childhood.
His own father, also named Herschel, whose relationship with his mother was at best hostile and at worst vicious, beat him to a degree that seems to make little sense.
The father's behaviour was that of the worst possible bully.
An episode with the BB pistol is only one of many Herschel cites. The father subjected the boy's bare legs to a hail of pellets, leaving the child covered with red welts.
"My father enjoyed these games with a little person at his mercy," Herschel writes. "I knew this full well by now, because they had started when I was much younger."
The father started with a bullwhip.
"During the summer I was four he taunted me to run across the lawn," Herschel recalls. "When I ran and jumped, he whirled his bull whip and snapped at my legs. The sting was like a swarm of bees had attacked my thigh all at once."
Herschel's mother was no help. She didn't beat the child. Neither did she offer any protection. She was too busy arguing with her husband, drinking whiskey to excess or socializing with others.
As Herschel explains in his introduction, he needed to describe his suffering childhood to give the reader a sense of his grandfather Ty's affection -- and of his sensitive nature. Ty provided the love and caring the parents denied (though one has to wonder how he treated his own son, Herschel's father, for him to be such a bully).
The most dramatic scene in the memoir occurs when Herschel makes a chance discovery of his grandfather's damaged legs, "marked all over by huge scars that looked violet-red, with large ridges crisscrossing over other ridges. There was almost no skin left. Scars on top of scars."
This was the condition with which Ty Cobb left professional baseball. In other words, he was the victim of violent play, not the perpetrator as he was portrayed by his critics.
Baseball by its very nature lends itself to statistical amplification (batting averages, runs batted in and so on). This memoir's facts can be verified by various encyclopedic and supplementary sources, such as Jim Kaplan's The Golden Years of Baseball and George Will's Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball.
A personal memoir can enrich the statistical account, as does this one about the great Ty Cobb.
Readers should find justice has been done to the Georgia Peach.
Ron Kirbyson is a Winnipeg writer and baseball fanatic.
Heart of a Tiger
Growing Up with My Grandfather, Ty Cobb
By Herschel Cobb
ECW Press, 279 pages, $25